Natural Born Charmer (Chicago Stars #7)(9)


by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

“Every time a man like you ogles a woman with artificial E cups, you encourage some innocent girl with perfectly nice breasts to go under the knife. Women should concentrate on expanding their horizons, not their busts.”

She’d made him feel personally responsible for the evils of breast enlargement, but Annabelle was like that. She had a lot of strong opinions, and she didn’t pull her punches. Annabelle was his one true female friend, but between her marriage to Heath Champion, his bloodsucker of an agent, and the birth of her second child, she didn’t have much time to hang out anymore.

He’d been thinking about Annabelle a lot today, maybe because the Beav had strong opinions, too, and she also didn’t seem interested in impressing him. It was odd being with a woman who wasn’t coming on to him. Of course, he had told her he was gay, but she’d figured out that was bullshit at least a hundred miles ago. Still, she’d kept trying to play him. But Little Bo Peep was way out of her league.

Her mouth froze in midyawn as she spotted the well-lit three-story hotel. As many times as she’d aggravated him today, he still wasn’t quite ready to hand her a couple hundred bucks and throw her out. For one thing, he wanted her to ask him for the money. For another, she’d been good company today. And then there was the hard-on that had been plaguing him for the past two hundred miles.

He turned in to the parking lot. “These places will take most any credit card.” He should have felt like a bully, but she was so full of tough talk and swagger that he didn’t.

Her lips compressed. “Unfortunately, I don’t have a credit card.”

No big surprise there.

“I abused the privilege a few years ago,” she went on, “and haven’t trusted myself since.” She studied the Merry Time Inn sign. “What are you going to do about your car?”

“Tip the security guy to watch it.”

“How much?”

“Why do you care?”

“I’m an artist. I’m interested in human behavior.”

He pulled into a parking space. “Fifty dollars now, I guess. Another fifty in the morning.”

“Excellent.” She held out her hand. “You’ve got yourself a deal.”

“You’re not watching my car tonight.”

The muscles in her throat worked as she swallowed. “Sure I am. Don’t worry. I’m a light sleeper. I’ll wake up the minute anybody gets too close.”

“You’re not sleeping in it, either.”

“Don’t tell me you’re one of those sexist jerks who thinks a woman can’t do a job as well as a man.”

“What I think is that you can’t afford a room.” He got out of the car. “I’ll sport you.”

She shot her sharp little nose up in the air and followed him. “I don’t need anybody ‘sporting’ me.”

“Really?”

“What I need is for you to let me guard your car.”

“Not going to happen.”

He could see her trying to find a way around him, and he wasn’t completely surprised when she began reeling off the price list for her portraits. “Even taking out the cost of a hotel room and a few meals,” she said when she finished, “you’ll have to agree that you’re getting the best end of the deal. I’ll start sketching you tomorrow over breakfast.”

The last thing he needed was another portrait of himself. What he really needed was…“You can start tonight.” He opened the trunk.

“Tonight? It’s…awfully late.”

“Barely nine o’clock.” This team could only have one quarterback, and he was it.

She muttered to herself and started rooting around in the trunk. He pulled out his suitcase and her navy duffel. She reached past him to snatch up one of the toolboxes that contained her art supplies and, still muttering, followed him to the entrance. He negotiated with the inn’s sole bellman to watch his car and headed for the reception desk. The Beav stayed at his side. Judging by the live music coming from the bar and the locals spilling out into the lobby, the Merry Time was the small town’s Saturday night hot spot. He noted the heads turning in his direction. Sometimes he could go for a couple of days without being recognized, but not tonight. A few people in the crowd openly stared. Those damn End Zone commercials. He set down the suitcases at the front desk.

The clerk, a studious-looking Middle Eastern guy in his twenties, greeted him politely, but without recognition. The Beav jabbed him in the ribs and cocked her head toward the bar. “Your fans,” she said, as if he hadn’t already noticed the two guys who’d detached themselves from the crowd and were heading his way. Both were middle-aged and overweight. One wore a Hawaiian shirt that bunched over his belly. The other had a handlebar mustache and cowboy boots.

“Time for me to start work,” the Beav said loftily. “I’ll take care of this.”

“No, you won’t. I’ll—”

“Hey, there,” Hawaiian shirt said. “Hope you don’t mind the interruption, but me and my buddy Bowman have a bet you’re Dean Robillard.” He stuck out his hand.

Before Dean could respond, the Beav blocked the man’s arm with her small body, and the next thing he knew, she was addressing him in a foreign accent that sounded like a cross between Serbo-Croatian and Yiddish. “Acht, this Dean Roam-a-lot, he is very famous man in America, yes? My poor husband”—she curled her fingers around Dean’s arm—“his Eeenglish is veddy, veddy bad, and he does not understand this. But my Eeenglish is veddy, veddy good, yes? And everywhere we go, these pipples—pipples like you—they come up to him and say they think he is this man, this Dean Roam-a-lot. But I say, no, my husband is not famous in America, but veddy famous in our country. He is a veddy famous—how you say?—por-nog-ra-pher.”

He just about choked on his spit.

She furrowed her brow. “Yes? Did I say this with rightness? He makes the dirty moo-vees.”

Dean was changing identities so fast even he was losing track. Still, the Beav deserved his support for all her hard work—however misguided—so he pulled in his grin and tried to look like he didn’t speak English.

She’d thrown the ol’ boys for a loss, and they didn’t know how to handle it. “We’re, uh…Well…Sorry, there. We thought…”